Lent 28

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus.

The words from the Book of Lamentations (1:12) seem particularly apt today. This is a standard translation, adapted from the King James Version:

All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.

The book itself laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but this particular text was often sung in Holy Week. Here is a link to a recording of the Tudor Consort from 2003 – our century – singing the setting from 1585 – the same century as our painting – by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

It is still over ten days until Holy Week, but seeing the Virgin’s face, this text, and its use in the liturgy, instantly sprang to mind. Mary is in a state of complete collapse. Her legs have folded beneath her and her arms hang limp, even with John supporting her left elbow. Her blue robe and blue cloak look especially sombre, and, although her state of mind is clear, her disorder is oh-so-subtly hinted at by her cuffs – one folded back neatly, revealing a grey lining, the other at full length half covering her hand. On the left we see the gesture of the turbaned Mary, who you might remember from yesterday, indicating the Virgin’s sorrowful face, as she looks down compassionately towards her. We see the donor’s praying hands: he is beside her, the material of their cloaks overlapping on the floor. He is contemplating her sorrows as much as the suffering of Jesus.

Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion is attested by all four gospels, but the most important source for us is John 19:26-27. As elsewhere in the book, John appears to be describing himself as ‘the disciple… whom he loved:

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

Apart from any normal human decency, these verses explain the care that St John shows to the Virgin: Jesus has told them, from the cross, to look after one another, to adopt one another, even. Often they are shown standing symmetrically on either side of the cross, Mary to our left, John to our right (giving Mary the higher status), but here, where The Good and The Bad are divided between Christ’s right and left, we see them together – with The Good.

The pallor of Mary’s face is extreme, as is the sense that every feature collapses every bit as much as her body – the eyebrows, mouth and even chin. The eyelids collapse, half covering her eyes, which are full of tears. The white veil covers her head, and wraps around in front of her chest, but her hair is left free. Her status as perpetual virgin meant that her hair was not subject to the same strictures as that of other women. It is not always covered as that of a woman of marriageable age should be: she was beyond reproach, and beyond suspicion. And if the image as a whole reminds me of Lamentations, this hair, tumbling loose, and free, reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant conceits, from one of his lesser known plays: King John, which was probably written a decade after the Victoria setting I linked to above. One of the characters, Constance, is the mother of young Arthur, who has been taken captive by King John – who is certain to kill him. Constance enters in Act 3, Scene 4 with her hair in disarray – she has let it down, loosed it from its ‘imprisonment’, in the same way that she wants Arthur freed from his. She later puts them – her hairs – up again, saying,

But now I envy at their liberty,
And will again commit them to their bonds,
Because my poor child is a prisoner.

This does not last long – despair overcomes her, as she utters one of the most penetrating descriptions of loss.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

At this point she lets her hair down again:

I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.

I think this perfectly expresses the image of the Virgin Mary which we see today.

All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

19 thoughts on “Lent 28

  1. These posts of yours are so enlightening, and today’s is especially moving. I so love all the “extra” bits that come with your information, like today’s O Vos Omnes, and the Shakespeare. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Richard. I love the Victoria. There is, of course, the wonderful aria from “Messiah” “Behold and See” setting this text, although not the right time for our picture! The Virgin here always makes me think of the Pergolesi “Stabet Mater”. Getting so much from these posts.

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  3. This is beautiful and so moving today, especially when you help us see so much more of what there is to see.

    Thank you for these daily offerings. I have been enjoying them immensely. They’re a perfect way to start my day (here in NY), and I missed not having yesterday’s till a little later! I took your course at the National Gallery last month and look forward to joining you for the next module. Many thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have loved every day’s detail but today was special . The sight of the Virgin’s face, the words of the Bible and Shakespeare together with the ethereal music were a most moving combination. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. On the journey your posts have taken us so far, this evocation of Mary’s grief is profound and painful to see. Unlike the usual depiction of the Virgins Seven Sorrows where she is usually pierced by blades the subtlety of today’s post is far more moving.
    Was the Friday before Palm Sunday recognised at that time, as the day of Mary’s Sorrows?


  6. Apparently, that only started in 1727, although the feast day was ‘officially’ suspended in 1969, in favour of the equivalent feast on 15 September. Not that that would have stopped anyone!


  7. Marvellous what you have given us today Richard with the dimensions of Victoria and Shakespeare added. Your self- imposed daily penances must involve so much work on your part but they greatly enlighten one’s own Lenten journey. Thank you so much ! Julia

    Liked by 1 person

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